AS the poignant image of Australian soldiers standing erect beside the Long Tan Cross came to life on the walls of the Water Tower Museum earlier this year, artist Jenny McCracken could never have imagined that one of those soldiers would again face the symbolic cross as veterans gathered to commemorate Vietnam Veterans' Day on August 18.
Veteran Neil Rankin and his wife Fay travelled to Gunnedah from Queensland to attend the service held for the first time at the the Long Tan Cross mural launched on Anzac Day, along with the mural image of Australian soldiers waiting for helicopters to land after Operation Ulmarra in 1967.
A veteran of the Battle of Long Tan, Mr Rankin is pictured first on the left of the image embracing the northern wall of the museum. He was the platoon sergeant of 10 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR in 1966.
Returning to his home town Cessnock for the 50th anniversary of the battle, Mr Rankin said in an interview that his platoon had been sent in to Long Tan to relieve pressure on 11 Platoon, which had encountered a large attack from behind. He said the troops had faced constant fire; and were running out of ammunition.
"We were under attack at all times," he said.
"Four hours isn't that long, but it is a long, long time when you're getting shot at."
Seventeen of his fellow D-Company soldiers died in the four-hour battle, while others wondered how they ever survived.
In 1969, Sergeant Rankin returned to Vietnam with 6RAR/NX (Anzac), charged with finding a site for the memorial Long Tan Cross.
The position they chose was 11 Platoon's which had repelled attack after attack but took the most casualties - out of a strength of 28, 13 Australians were killed and eight were wounded. When Sergeant Rankin marked the site for the cross with the heel of his boot, it was at the scene of the platoon's last stand, where so much young blood had been shed.
Designed and constructed by the Pioneers from the 6RAR-NZ ANZAC Battalion's Assault Pioneer Platoon, the unique cross was flown in by helicopter and positioned on the battlefield where three years earlier the bloodiest battle involving Australian troops had taken place.
The plaque reads:
In memory of those members of D Coy and 3 Tp 1 APC Sqn who gave their lives near this spot during the battle of Long Tan on 18TH August 1966.
Erected by 6RAR/NZ
(ANZAC) Bn 18 Aug 69.
The entire battalion of 6RAR/NZ (Anzac) was assembled for the dedication ceremony led by a chaplain. Standing on either side of the cross, flanked by two pipers, were 10 soldiers who fought at Long Tan in 1966 - Sergeant Rankin was one of those soldiers.
He said at the time that when they played the piper's lament, that's when it really hit home.
"Where I put that cross - in 11 Platoon's position - I knew it was in the blood of that platoon. It was important to me that that was where that cross stood."
During his 30 years service in the Australian Army, Neil Rankin rose to the rank of captain.
The story of the Long Tan Cross was lost for a time when it was removed and used by the local people as a memorial for a Catholic priest. In 1984, the cross was recovered and placed on display at the Dong Nai Museum along with other relics of the war.
Two years later a replica cross erected on the site became the focus for visits and remembrance ceremonies by Australian Vietnam War veterans.
After being loaned to the Australian War memorial for display in 2012-2013, the Vietnamese Government permanently gifted the original Long Tan Cross to Australia in 2017. Originally planted in the blood of Australian heroes in Vietnam, the Long Tan Cross now has a new home on the white walls of the Australian War Memorial - symbol of heritage and sacrifice.
Mr Rankin thanked everyone involved in having the murals painted on the Water Tower Museum and paid tribute to artist Jenny McCracken for her skill and dedication to bringing the poignant moment alive.
The moment was made even more special by the presence of two of Mr Rankin's soldiers who travelled some distance to Gunnedah for the service so they could cross paths with him again after 53 years.
"It makes me feel so proud that my soldiers came to see me and still respect me after all these years," he said.